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Baseball Ready For Comeback, But Are Fans?

March 23, 1996

Now these were sounds that hadn’t been heard for a while at many ballparks.

``Wonderful!″ adults shouted from the box seats. ``Terrific!″ kids cheered from the grandstand.

Had fans finally forgiven the sport that had disillusioned them?

Actually, no. It was a spring training game at West Palm Beach, Fla., and the chants were for an Atlanta rookie with the real name of Wonderful Terrific Monds III.

That said, will this be the year? At a time when Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Ryne Sandberg have returned, will baseball be able to make the biggest comeback of all?

Maybe. Because for the first time in recent memory, the sport seems to be headed in the right direction _ even without a commissioner for the fourth straight year or a contract between owners and players.

For once, there’s no talk of labor problems skewing the season or wrecking the World Series. That means a full, 162-game schedule for the first time since 1993, and a chance to see Albert Belle, Matt Williams and others break some records.

Next, the TV trouble has been fixed. Thanks to a package involving NBC, ESPN and Fox, fans will see a Game of the Week in the summer and, more importantly, be able to watch every single postseason game in the fall.

And, at last, all sides are working together to make the game grow and make up from the 20 percent drop in attendance last year.

_ Fox is shooting creative ads featuring Greg Maddux, Hideo Nomo and other stars. A smiling Ken Griffey Jr. is all over the screen, courtesy of those ``Griffey for President″ Nike ads.

_ There’s a push to tap into new markets. The San Diego Padres, looking south of the border, will play a three-game series in Monterrey, Mexico, against the New York Mets in August.

_ Most ballparks are gearing up with events such as Stupid Human Tricks Night at Comiskey Park and extra discount days at Busch Stadium. The Florida Marlins, who’ve seen attendance fall off 37 percent since their expansion season of 1993, had players manning ticket booths.

``I think everybody who plays the game has a small responsibility to promote the game in his own way,″ said baseball’s best role model, Cal Ripken Jr.

``People might say I have a bigger role, but I don’t think so. The attraction is the sport.″

So far, the indications are encouraging.

Season ticket sales across the majors are projected to increase 6.3 percent this year. The Cleveland Indians, eager to get another shot at beating Atlanta in the World Series, already have sold every seat at Jacobs Field for every game this season.

Exhibitions crowds, after a slow start, have increased. And many fans who showed their displeasure last season _ like those Mets rooters who ran onto the field and threw $1 bills at players _ seem willing to give the game one more chance, just like always.

``Baseball has the most resiliency of any major sport,″ Ozzie Smith said. ``It’s part of our lives. It’s Americana.″

Smith, back for another season with St. Louis at age 41, said he feels a reconciliation between the fans and the game this spring.

``Last year, the strike gave people an excuse not to come, to stay away,″ he said. ``It became a fad. It was cool to say, `Oh, I don’t like baseball anymore.′ But I’ve been through a lot of the strikes and the problems, and baseball always bounces back.″

We’ll see, starting March 31.

In the earliest opening ever _ engineered to prevent the season from possibly stretching into November _ the Chicago White Sox play the Seattle Mariners at the Kingdome on that Sunday night. No telling if Cy Young winner Randy Johnson or MVP candidates Frank Thomas or Griffey will become baseball’s first Mr. March.

The rest of the teams begin the next day, April Fool’s Day. The joke is on the Oakland Athletics this time; because of construction at their Coliseum, they’re playing their first six home games in Las Vegas at 9,000-seat-plus Cashman Field.

Certainly, there will be plenty to follow:

_ The Braves, with Maddux trying to win his fifth straight Cy Young, as they attempt to become the first NL team to win successive World Series since Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in 1975-76.

_ Belle, baseball’s biggest basher on and off the field, as he tries to lead the Indians to their first title since 1948.

_ Sandberg, coming off a 1 1/2-year retirement, as he works to regain his All-Star form at age 36. Dwight Gooden, meanwhile, returns from a 1 1/2-year drug suspension.

_ Ripken, his consecutive games streak now at 2,153, as he closes in on the world record of 2,215 set by Sachio Kinugasa of the Hiroshima Carp in Japan from 1970-87.

_ The revamped Orioles, with free agent Roberto Alomar teaming with Ripken as one of the best double-play combos ever. The overhauled Cardinals, led by new manager Tony La Russa, play on the new grass in St. Louis.

_ The Astros, with former President Bush appearing in TV ads, trying to draw 2.5 million fans. If not, owner Drayton McLane might sell the team to someone who might move it out of town.

_ Promising pitchers, such as rookie Jason Schmidt of the Braves and the trio of Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson of the Mets. They come while baseball bids farewell to former Detroit manager Sparky Anderson and future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield; Don Mattingly and Tom Henke also will sit out opening day, though they may someday return.

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